Brazil competes economically by investing in science and technology
President Barack Obama's visit to Brazil highlights the country's investment in science and technology as global economic competition heats up.
By Solana Pyne
In a bustling laboratory at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, white-coated researchers peer into microscopes. Others check on the health of goldfish in a tank in the refrigerator.
The scientists here are studying the basics of metabolism -- for instance, how biological processes speed up and slow down with temperature. The research might one day provide clues to human obesity.
The team is led by an enthusiastic, round-faced young scientist named Wagner Seixas.
"I'm just at the beginning of my career," Seixas said. "When I first started working at the lab, people at my level didn't have the access to the same kind of resources that I have now."
Seixas began coming to the lab seventeen years ago, as a high school student. He's from a poor family in one of Rio's most violent neighborhoods.
His original plan was to become a television repairman, but then he earned a rare spot in a pioneering program to train low-income teenagers in science. He went on to earn his Ph.D., and then take a postdoctoral position at Harvard.
Seixas was offered a chance to stay at Harvard, but he wanted to help Brazil improve the quality of its scientific research. "That's why I came back," he said.
Seixas is an up-and-coming scientist in a country where science is up-and-coming. Brazil wants to become a major player on the world scientific stage.
The government has more than tripled the budget for the Ministry of Science in the last ten years.
"We used to joke at the University of Sao Paulo that the best way to do science in Brazil is to go to the airport" and leave the country, said neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, who now heads a laboratory at Duke University in North Carolina.
"That has changed," Nicolelis continued. "There are lots of people returning -- people that went for postdocs and graduate school returning -- and there are more senior people, like me, considering going back."
Nicolelis recently founded a neuroscience research center in the Northeast of Brazil. He also wants to turn the research there into products, like devices that could help those who are paralyzed to walk again, so he has plans for a research park for industry next to the new institute.
"It's going to be the first science district in the world focused on neurotechnology," he said.
Brazil's bold scientific endeavors aren't limited to neuroscience. Next year, the country will launch its first expedition to the South Pole.
"It's a sign that we're having much more investment in science," said glaciologist Jefferson Simoes, who will lead the expedition.
Despite these ambitious projects, Simoes and others contend that science in Brazil still has a long way to go.
Brazil's notorious bureaucracy slows down research and makes it hard for scientists here to compete with those abroad. And scientists worry that the government's investment will drop now that their biggest champion, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is out of office.
Brazil's new President, Dilma Rousseff, just cut the science budget by a quarter as part of an overall effort to rein in government spending. But Luiz Davidovich, a physicist on the board of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, believes it is only a temporary setback.
"The new president in her inaugural speech emphasized the role of science and technology and education in the development of the country, so I don't think it would be nice for her to contradict herself in this matter," said Davidovich.
Davidovich recently led a commission that called for a substantial boost in government and private spending on research and development. The commission also urged more investment in public education.
Both of those goals were set back by this year's austerity budget, and that means young Brazilian scientists are closely watching where the country is going.
Twenty-six-year-old Reinaldo Sousa dos Santos is now finishing his doctorate in biochemistry and is looking to spend a year or two working in the United States or Europe.
"Right now I plan to return," he said, "but if the right proposal came up, nothing is stopping me from staying abroad."
He said he'll go where opportunity leads. It's up to Brazil to make sure opportunity leads him back home.
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